PM+: Call for EU to limit trans fats

Written by Glenis Willmott on 8 June 2015 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

There's overwhelming evidence supporting a limit on industrially produced trans fats in food, argues Glenis Willmott.

Trans fatty acids (TFAs) are a particular type of unsaturated fat found in their natural form in foods obtained from ruminants, such as dairy products and meat.

Artificial, or industrially produced, trans fatty acids (IPTFAs) and ruminant trans fatty acids have similar metabolic effects, but ruminant TFAs are generally consumed in low amounts in most populations (about 0.5 per cent of total energy intake) and at this level have no apparent major adverse health effects.


The negative impact of artificial trans fats on heart health is beyond dispute; an intake of 5g per day is associated with a 23 per cent increase in the risk of heart disease.

Additionally, they may exacerbate other chronic diseases like kidney and liver disease, diabetes and cancer. No beneficial health effect has been identified for IPFTAs.

Although the amount of artificial trans fats found in food has fallen over the last 10 to 15 years, many popular foods still contain high amounts of IPTFAs.

This is particularly the case in eastern and south-eastern Europe, and in some EU member states the availability of this type of food has actually increased substantially since 2012.

We do not know exactly how many people have high intakes of IPTFAs. A recent survey across eight countries found that the average person's intake of IPTFAs did not exceed one per cent of total energy intake (or about 2.5 g).

However, this average masks potentially important differences as younger people and people from socially disadvantaged groups are more likely to consume products that contain a high amount of IPTFAs.

In 2003, the Danish government introduced a regulatory limit on IPTFAs because an estimated one per cent of its population (roughly 50,000 people) were consuming more than 5g per day.

In the EU, it is estimated that more than five million people consume more than 5g of artificial trans fats per day, which significantly increases their risk of heart disease.

To date, only three EU member states (Austria, Denmark and Hungary) have set a legal limit on IPTFAs, but other countries could follow unless the European commission comes forward with EU-wide legislation.

There is every reason to do so: following regulatory intervention, the intake of IPTFAs fell rapidly in Denmark to around or below 1g per day, a reduction which may partly explain the country's 70 per cent drop in mortality from heart disease between 1980 and 2009.

There is overwhelming evidence to support an EU regulatory approach. A 2008 study recommended that a ban on IPTFAs should be considered at EU level, while in 2009, the world health organisation (WHO) concluded that there was sufficient evidence to recommend reducing significantly or virtually eliminating IPTFAs from food.

More recently, the European heart network, the European society of cardiology and the European chronic disease alliance have published evidence-based papers on TFAs, all calling for a legal limit on IPTFAs in food sold in the EU.

The commission was due to present a report on trans fats in foods by December 2014, but we are yet to see it.

Proposing a legal limit would be a unique opportunity to implement a straightforward measure that would protect the health of millions of EU citizens, reduce health inequalities and save millions in health-care costs for EU member states.

That's a good example of better regulation working in the best interests of EU citizens.


About the author

Glenis Willmott (S&D, UK) is a member of the European parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee​

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